Octávio Brandão

Octávio Brandão/ Art by Marcelo Guimarães Lima


Word of Dictionary Marxism in America

Life and political praxis

Octávio Brandão (1896-1980) was born and spent his first years in Viçosa, a city in the interior of Alagoas, the nucleus of a sugar-producing region dominated by agrarian oligarchies and with little social development. According to his memoirs, his formation took place within an “impoverished urban petty bourgeoisie”, which, although adhering to progressive ideas, was a victim of the power of large “semi-feudal” rural landowners.

The death of his mother, when Octávio Brandão was just four years old, affected him greatly. From then on he would live with an uncle, in a small typical cabocla house, on the Barro Branco mill, returning to Viçosa only when his father remarried. He attended Escola Silva Jardim, in elementary school, where he would have his first contact with evolutionary ideas, through a teacher.

In 1911, when he was already living with another uncle in Maceió – being enrolled at Colégio Marista –, he was also orphaned by his father, a man with republican and progressive ideas. Despite being raised in a conservative Catholic environment, he broke with religion at the age of 16, influenced by his paternal education, which instilled in him the questioning of social hypocrisy; This was an emotional and intellectual milestone of this phase of his life in the capital of Alagoas. Furthermore, the perception of the poverty situation of the majority of the population and the impact of the news of the Revolt of the Whip (1910) and the workers' strikes in the Southeast attracted increasing attention to the country's serious problems.

Between 1912 and 1914, he lived in the capital of Pernambuco, where he graduated from the Recife School of Pharmacy (currently part of the Federal University of Pernambuco). Soon after graduation, he returned to Maceió. There he came into contact with the main works of universal literature and developed a keen scientific interest, which made him turn to the natural sciences.

At the age of 20, he undertook a series of trips through the interior of his state to discover its geological formation and natural riches. Based on this research, in 1916 he began to write Canals and lagoons (published in 1919) – book that describes the Mundaú-Manguaba water complex and can be seen as one of the first Brazilian ecological studies. On the topic, he also gave several conferences in Maceió, showing evidence of the existence of oil in the region and early on observing the importance that oil prospecting could have for the Brazilian economy.

In 1918, he began writing for the anarchist press – collaborating with the Diario de Pernambuco and having founded the newspaper The people. At the time, he also linked himself to urban and rural workers' movements, defending the 8-hour day and agrarian reform.

He was arrested for the first time in 1919. After being released, he began to be persecuted, which made him leave, in the same year, for Rio de Janeiro – where he would reside until 1931, when he was forced to leave the country.

In the capital of the Republic, he came into contact with the intellectual and political world, especially with Astrojildo Pereira (1890-1965) – who would become one of the founders of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCB), in March 1922. There, the man from Alagoas he would be impressed by the workers' mobilizations, having delved into studies on the Russian Revolution. He then began to write in anarchist newspapers The Plebs, The Vanguard and Brazil Magazine (from São Paulo, directed by Monteiro Lobato), also collaborating with the Spartacus and the Impartial (Rio de Janeiro), in addition to the German magazine Ekenntnis und Befreiung [Recognition and Liberation].

With such activities, he had access to the Marxist literature that arrived in the country – and from these times came his disillusionment with anarchism and his quick adherence to the ideas of Marx and Engels. In 1920, he joined the Brazilian Communist Group Zumbi. He married the poet and his fighting companion, Laura Fonseca da Silva, the following year.

Although not one of the founders of PCB, Octávio Brandão followed its development from the beginning. He joined the Party, at the invitation of Astrojildo, in October 1922. He would soon become a leader (member of the Central Executive Committee) and begin to methodically study the Marxist classics. During this period, he acquired a small pharmacy, an establishment that would become a type of office and meeting point for popular activists. His research on the October Bolshevik Revolution resulted in the book proletarian Russia, written in the same year.

In 1923, already a member of the Party's Central Committee, he undertook a daring task: translating into Portuguese the Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – from the French edition revised by Engels himself.

In July of the following year, a revolution broke out in São Paulo that aimed to overthrow the government of President Arthur Bernardes (1924-28) – who maintained a permanent state of siege throughout his entire term. Persecuted by repression, Octávio Brandão would live illegally between 1924 and 1926, keeping an eye on events. In an attempt to respond to the political questions raised by the insurrection, in 1924 he wrote a large part of his most important work, Agrarianism and industrialism – prepared in collaboration with the PCB management –, which would be complemented and published two years later under the pseudonym Fritz Mayer (used to mislead the police).

In 1925, Octávio Brandão was one of the founders and the first editor of The Working Class, official body of the PCB. At the time, he also taught political theory courses to groups of workers, in a patient training effort, in addition to making leaflets and making several speeches at public demonstrations.

In 1927, he became editor-in-chief of the daily The Nation – which spread communist ideas among workers. In the same year, with Astrojildo Pereira and other leaders and activists, he founded the Bloco Operário, a legal façade of the Party (then in hiding) – a legal and mass organization, whose name, in 1928, became Bloco Operário e Camponês (BOC ). In a few months, more than 60 BOC committees would be created by the city of Rio de Janeiro; among them, the Working Women's Committee, the first female and socialist mass entity in Brazil.

In the elections for the Municipal Mayor of Rio, in October 1928, the two BOC candidates – Octávio Brandão and Minervino de Oliveira – were elected. Both exercised their mandates in a combative and articulated manner, fighting memorable fights against representatives of the conservative elite. Brandão thus intensified his training work and contact with workers' unions; Minervino, a black marble worker, would become the Party's first candidate for president of the Republic (in 1930).

However, with the PCB's turn towards the worker movement – ​​a position influenced by the “class against class” line of the VI Congress of the III International, in 1928 –, the association's intellectuals began to be marginalized. Brandão was then accused of “right-wingism” and “Menshevism”, losing his position in the management (along with Astrojildo Pereira).

On October 3, 1930, when Getúlio Vargas came to power, the Municipal Inspectorate was closed, its members lost their mandates and the two communist representatives were arrested.

On June 18, 1931, Octávio Brandão was removed from prison and deported to Bremen, Germany (same fate as his wife Laura and three daughters). From there he managed to go to the Soviet Union, where he would remain in exile until 1946.

In the USSR, he worked on the radio Moscow, producing and presenting programs in Portuguese, and worked alongside the management of the III International, until its dissolution in 1943. However, his family had a difficult stay, starting with facing the rigors of winter in a simple apartment, without heating, in a capital where the temperature in winter reaches minus 10º C. Furthermore, from 1941 onwards, a decade after escaping – in his words – “the police bullets in Rio de Janeiro”, he had to survive “the bombs from Nazi planes in Moscow”.

In 1942, in the precarious situation of exile, his wife Laura died of leukemia. It was a strong blow to her life and those of her four daughters. The following year, he married Lúcia, sister of Luís Carlos Prestes, with whom he would have two more daughters.

Upon returning to Brazil, in 1946, he was reappointed to the Executive Committee of the PCB Central Committee, in the position of treasurer. A year later, during the Party's short legal period (1945-1948), he was elected councilor – in an election in which the communists had the largest group, obtaining 18 of the 49 seats. With the revocation of the party, Octávio Brandão arbitrarily lost his second popular term.

Octávio Brandão would live in hiding – until 1958, when, under the Juscelino Kubitschek government, he was able to return to legal life. In 1956, the XNUMXth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was marked by heavy denunciations against Joseph Stalin, made by the then general secretary, Nikita Khrushchev, which shook and divided the communist movement around the world. Disillusioned with the situation, Octávio Brandão gradually moved away from the PCB in the following years.

Although with rarefied political activity, but marked by decades of militancy, Octávio Brandão had to return to hiding after the military coup of 1964. He then lived precariously, reappearing in legal life just 15 years later, in 1979, already over 80 years of age – of which 65 were dedicated to the workers’ cause. Shortly before his return to legality, he accused a “conspiracy” surrounding his life, work and struggle: “they try to bury them, as if they had never existed”.

Octávio Brandão died in the city of Rio de Janeiro, in 1980, at the age of 83.

Contributions to Marxism

Octávio Brandão, together with Astrojildo Pereira (1890-1965), formed the pioneering nucleus of Marxist thought and the Communist Party of Brazil (PCB), from the 1920s onwards. Both were forged in the successive workers' mobilizations and strikes of the previous decade and they made the intellectual and political transition from anarchism to communism based on the global influence of the Russian Revolution (1917) and the perception of the insufficiencies of the political directions of social movements at the time.

The life, work and struggle of Octávio Brandão are inseparable in his long career: he served twice as a councilor in the city of Rio de Janeiro (and both times his mandate was revoked), he was arrested 17 times and lived in exile in the Soviet Union for 15 years. In his memoirs, he defined himself as follows: a “Brazilian writer”, “caboclo Indian from the interior of the Northeast”, “patriot and humanist, democrat and revolutionary”, “combatant for the national and social liberation of Brazil and humanity”, “partisan of the scientific socialism of Marx, Engels and Lenin” and “realistic, romantic and revolutionary poet”.

Octávio Brandão's pioneering spirit, boldness and militant courage are often underestimated and forgotten; his Marxism is now and again attacked as “anti-dialectical” or “dogmatic”. Such assessments, however, are simplistic – as they refer to an intellectual trailblazer, trained in a country without universities, without statistical sources and in which 65% of the population was illiterate (according to data from the 1920 census).

Even though at the time Brandão had little access to Marxist literature and almost no statistical data about Brazil was available, historically his contribution was decisive for the construction of Marxist thought in our country. Self-taught in the subject, he wrote an emblematic book at the age of 28: Agrarianism and industrialism: Marxist-Leninist essay on the São Paulo revolt and the class war in Brazil. This is one of the first attempts to read Brazilian reality based on historical materialism – a much attacked work, but little known, despite having had a strong influence among socialists in the first half of the 20th century.

A seminal work, the book is a kind of outline of a party program. As Octávio Brandão himself comments in the memoir Combats and battles (1978), the text “still incomplete was circulated in typed copies, serving as support for the theses that Astrojildo Pereira presented to the II Congress of the PCB (16 to 18 May 1925)”.

In his work from the 1920s, Octávio Brandão understands the recently-occurred 1924 Revolution in São Paulo as an “episode of class struggle in the Brazilian sector of an international battle”. From there, he seeks to understand the main global confrontations in the period after World War I, when the British empire entered its irreversible decline.

The analysis, despite being impressionistic and precarious – given the lack of available information and the author's own intellectual immaturity – seeks to escape the historicist traditionalism of the time. According to Octávio Brandão: “The policy is fatally agrarian, the policy of coffee farmers installed in the Catete palace”; “there is a disorganized, chaotic bourgeois opposition”; and amendment considering that “the political delay is such that the industrial bourgeoisie has not yet formed its party, while the proletariat has already managed to forge its party since 1922”. His conclusion is that “the country is poisoned by Catholic, feudal and reactionary agrarianism”.

The basis of his reasoning is the external domination that prevailed in the country: “The current era is characterized by imperialism”; “imperialism is the world domination of capitalism, the replacement of free competition by monopoly, the formation of a financial oligarchy”, “it is the export of capital”. He describes imperialism as the domination of a “holy Trinity”, made up of “heavy industry, banks and railways”. Or even, as: “the union of politicians with financiers”; “the union of politicians with industrialists”; “the internationalization of social relations”; “the division of the world into zones of influence”; “the struggle for sources of raw materials”; “the struggle for the spheres of application of capital”; “the fight for markets”.

There are clear theoretical and methodological insufficiencies in the book. The author's own dialectic sounds somewhat mechanistic and some concepts emanating especially from Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism (1917), by Lenin, are used without much mediation for the Brazilian context. Furthermore, the mention of a supposed “feudal agrarianism”, not analyzed in depth, reveals a mechanical transposition of the social formations of Western Europe, already extensively studied by the classics of Marxism. Once again, this conclusion was due more to ignorance than to any empirical investigation. This aspect of the work earned him heavy attacks within the left itself in the following decades. Even so, its conceptualization remained in the official line of the PCB at least until the Fifth Congress, held in 1960 – in whose resolutions one can read that “in its current stage, the Brazilian Revolution is anti-imperialist and anti-feudal, national and democratic” .

The controversy over the existence or not of a feudal stage in the development of Brazilian society would have a strong contrary argument, especially from 1966 onwards, when the launch of The Brazilian Revolution, by Caio Prado Júnior, a work in which the Marxist from São Paulo observes: “It was assumed from the outset, and without further inquiry, that in Brazil capitalism was preceded by a feudal phase, and that the remains of this phase were still present at the time current"; with this, “the rare traces found were immediately focused and placed in prominence, thus serving to frame everything else that was gone through this form, forcing them into the scheme and the prefixed mold”.

However, Agrarianism, a fundamental work by Octávio Brandão, overcomes its shortcomings, firstly due to the boldness of a young researcher in venturing into such a high theoretical flight and undertaking an unprecedented task in the country. As mentioned, the communist leader makes the first consistent analysis of the 1924 Revolution, a rebellion that occurred between July 5th and 28th of the same year in which the work was written. The movement resulted from an intricate web of historical tensions. Its roots are in the worsening of social problems, in the authoritarianism of the governments of the so-called Old Republic and in discontent within the military (which had already led to the lieutenant movement, two years earlier).

The neighborhoods of Mooca, Belenzinho, Brás and Centro suffered aerial bombardment, something unprecedented in a Brazilian capital. Three weeks after it began, the rebellion was cornered, and of the city's 700 inhabitants, around 200 fled to the interior, jostling on trains leaving Luz station. The balance of the 23 days of revolt was 503 dead, 4.846 injured and the number of homeless exceeded twenty thousand. At the end of the night of the 28th, around 3,5 insurgents withdrew from the city with heavy weapons in three railway trains. Brandão classifies the movement as “the second battle that the national petty bourgeoisie has fought against the coffee farmers, masters of the nation”.

Despite the qualities and pioneering spirit of the work, Brandão, decades later, would make a heavy self-criticism – in an article published in the newspaper Popular Press (“A stage in the history of struggles”, 1957). After listing a series of victories and commendable attitudes of the Party, he states: “Unfortunately, the development and consolidation of the CP were hampered by right-wing deviations”; “despite all efforts and attempts, our CP failed to understand the character of the revolution, its stages and driving forces”.

And he adds: “The author of these lines is certainly one of those responsible for these errors – and their roots are in his work Agrarianism and industrialism”. Octávio Brandão also lists what he considers to be serious mistakes and deviations in his work. There are exaggerations there: Agrarianism and industrialism remains a founding work of Marxism and the construction of left-wing organizations in Brazil.

As explained, the struggle of people from Alagoas to defend the “autonomy of the Brazilian people” – “as a result of the fight for oil and other social demands” – generated persecution, as well as many years of exile. He would later write: “it was a source of joy to see that so many struggles were not useless”. With activism based on convictions, a broad intellectual repertoire and political and personal integrity, his contribution to the construction of Marxist thought in our country left marks of great vigor.

Comment on the work

It is difficult to measure the extent of Octávio Brandão's work. A considerable part of it was lost or destroyed in police persecution, in the precarious situation of hiding, or even in exile in Russia. In his own description, they are notes and drafts of books and articles on which he worked for years – and whose preservation was an arduous task for him. However, what has physically survived time is something of the greatest historical importance.

His main work is the one already analyzed Agrarianism and industrialism: Marxist-Leninist essay on the São Paulo revolt and the class war in Brazil (Rio de Janeiro: sn, 1926). To prevent its author from political repression, the first edition is signed with the pseudonym Fritz Mayer and the city of Buenos Aires is indicated on the cover as the place of publication. The book is divided into three parts. The first, “Analysis”, as well as the second, “Synthesis”, were written in mid-1924; the third, “The permanent revolt”, was prepared between 1925 and 1926. With a clear and indignant text, Agrarianism and industrialism it is not a long book; its second edition, launched by Editora Anita Garibaldi, in 2006, 80 years after the first, has just 176 pages.

Starting from the analysis of two then recent events – tenentismo and the Revolution of 1924, in São Paulo –, the author's proposal is bold: to analyze the country, its main economic activities, the dominant classes and the genesis and situation of the proletariat and the poor in general in a peripheral, pre-industrial and socially backward country. He understands the 1924 Revolution as a Brazilian “episode” of the international class struggle and analyzes global conflicts after the First World War. Throughout the work, Brandão attempts to carry out a survey of the main factions of the agrarian oligarchy throughout the country.

Here we have a constant search to understand the capillaristic links of power in each federative unit and how the fractions of the dominant classes were articulated nationally, with the help of the Catholic Church within the State apparatus. “This is what Brazil is” – he states – “a stupendous country, where extremes collide daily, where the most incredible things are achievable, a semi-colonial, semi-feudal and semi-bourgeois industrial country, a country of absurdity and conformism, all of which weighs heavily on our shoulders and trying to disorient our brains.”

Among other notable works by the communist from Alagoas, is the pioneering translation of Communist Manifesto, written in 1923. Until then, the only Marxist work translated here was The citizen and the producer, a leaflet by Vladimir Ilich Lenin also published in 1923, in Recife, containing excerpts from an interview between the Soviet leader and American colonel Raymundo Robnis.

Canals and Lagoons (Rio de Janeiro: author's edition, 1919), written between 1916 and 1918, was drafted in two volumes, but only the first was completed. Its second edition, published only in 1949 (Rio de Janeiro: sn), brings a preface in which the author states that “the study of Nature is the starting point for discovering the country’s riches, for its industrial development” – for “the production of means of production”.

The work – which received a posthumous edition (Maceió: EDUFAL, 2001) – is a poetic record of Alagoas nature, in which Brandão protests against the misery and abandonment of the people and seeks to show the importance of his idea of ​​a “compass theory ” – that is, a theory as a guide for practical action. In his words, the book “studies the geography, mineralogy and geology of the region”, drawing attention to “a series of theoretical and practical, natural and social problems”.

Regarding the Russian Revolution, Brandão wrote, in 1923, proletarian Russia (Rio de Janeiro: Voz Cosmopolita), in which he speaks out in defense of the 1917 Revolution. In the book, he tried for the first time to use Marxist instruments to interpret Brazilian reality.

Yes, Combats and battles (São Paulo: Editora Alfa-Ômega, 1978) is an account of his life and his relationship with the workers' movements. In it, he recounts his experiences in Brazilian working-class life between 1917 and 1931, taking stock of the battles he fought until he was exiled by Getúlio Vargas. More than a book of memories, it is a work of historical interpretation, written in agile prose, in which he recounts a suffering and painful life, in which he made choices not only to guarantee his survival in difficult times, but to place himself on the side he thought fair. It is a contextualized autobiography and an account of the beginnings of workers' struggles in our country.

Another production by Octávio Brandão is worth mentioning, although it should not be classified alongside his main works: in 1958, he published The nihilist Machado de Assis (Rio de Janeiro: Simões Organization). The work represents a contrast to Astrojildo Pereira's vision of the writer and his time. For Astrojildo, there would be “an intimate and profound consonance between the literary work of Machado de Assis and the meaning of Brazil's political and social evolution”.

Octávio Brandão does not see Machado de Assis as someone focused on the reality of his time; he considers him apolitical and accuses him of despising the poor and black people. The book suffered acidic comments from literary critics such as Otto Maria Carpeaux, Franklin de Oliveira and Brito Broca – which may have contributed to accentuating Octávio Brandão's intellectual isolation.

An author with intellectual forays on several fronts, he wrote two articles discussing issues related to letters and their importance among the working class. The first “Literature without ideology”, published in 1960 in Brasiliense Magazine, talks about a genre that is closer to the interests of the working class: “Literature always has a class content”. Continuing his previous work (“O nihilista Machado de Assis”), Octávio Brandão recognizes the qualities of Machado’s writing and his concern with describing “the rot of the slave society”, but at one point, states that the writer was a “ representative of the decadent bourgeoisie”, more concerned with treating “decadent”, “parasitic” characters.

In the text “For revolutionary realism”, also published in Brasiliense Magazine (1961), the theme is the importance of realism, defined by the author as “revolutionary”. For Octávio Brandão, revolutionary realism, as it appears in “A Mãe” by Máximo Gorki: “is the real representation of reality, in the artistic and literary field, in specific forms – living and faithful representation, in perennial movement and development, transformation and revolutionary transfiguration.” The concern with discussions about art and, in particular, literature reinforce the vigor of his intellectual production. Never abandoning the critical and communist perspective, even with some limits, he was always attentive to the perspective of the working class.

It is also important to highlight his intervention texts, such as “Brazil explored and oppressed” and “O petróleo e a Petrobrás”, both from 1962, published in Brasiliense Magazine. In them he draws attention to US imperialist action and its “support base” in defending its interests in national oil. He accuses the “agents of imperialism in Brazil” of “adventurers and provocateurs, like Carlos Lacerda”. He further describes the partners of imperialism: “The most reactionary groups of the two dominant classes in Brazil – the large rural landowners and the big bourgeoisie”, as well as “the politicians linked to these groups”.

Among his articles, it is also worth mentioning his self-criticism “A stage in the history of struggles” (Popular Press, 20 Jan. 1957) – available in digital format on the portal marxists (www.marxists.org). In the writing, he considers that the party “underestimated the importance of the peasants” and “overestimated petit-bourgeois revolutionaryism in general and, in particular, the significance of the petit-bourgeois rebels of Copacabana, São Paulo and Coluna Prestes” – thus having the “Worker and Peasant Bloc” was valued more than “the PC itself”.

Online, your work can be read on portals such as Marxism 21 (https://marxismo21.org) and on the aforementioned portal marxists. Among his digitized writings are: “A law on the Brazilian press” (Dec. 1923); “Reaction and repression: letter from Brazil” (Apr. 1924); “The penury of criticism” (1958); “Literature without ideology?” (1960); “The primacy of nature: Science and Philosophy” (1961); “For revolutionary realism” (1961); “Life lived: memories” (1961); “Brazil explored and oppressed” (1962); “Oil and Petrobrás” (1962); “Working Class Fights” (1963); “The working class” (1978).

Octávio Brandão's collection is preserved at the Edgard Leuenroth Archive (AEL) – linked to the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) –, including books, letters and notes, among other documents.

*Gilberto Maringoni He is a professor of International Relations and Political Economy at the Federal University of ABC. Author, among other books, of The return of the planning State: neoliberalism in check (countercurrent).

*Paulo Alves Jr. He is a professor of history at the University of International Integration of Afro-Brazilian Lusofonia (Bahia). Author of An intellectual in the trenches: José Honório Rodrigues, interpreter from Brazil (Dialectic Publisher).

Originally published on the Praxis Nucleus-USP


BIANCHI, Álvaro, “Octavio Brandão and the confiscation of memory: a marginal note in the history of Brazilian communism”. Marxist Criticism, Campinas, 2012.

DEL ROIO, Mark. "Octávio Brandão on the origins of Marxism in Brazil”. Criticism. Marxist, São Paulo, v. 1, no. 18, 2004.

FEIJÓ, Martin Cézar. the cordial revolutionary. São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial, 2002.

LACERDA, Felipe Castilho de, Octávio Brandão and the intellectual matrices of communism in Brazil. Dissertation (Master’s in History), Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo, S. Paulo, 2017.

MANSILLA AMARAL, Roberto. A silenced memory: ideas, struggles and disappointments in the life of the revolutionary Octavio Brandão (1917-1980). Dissertation (Master’s in History), Institute of Human Sciences and Philosophy of the Fluminense Federal University, Rio de Janeiro, 2003.

MORAES, João Quartim de (org.). History of Marxism in Brazil. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 2007.

PEREIRA, Astrojildo, Machado de Assis. São Paulo: Boitempo/Fundação Astrojildo Pereira, 2022.

PINHEIRO, Filipe. “Revisiting Canals and Lagoons, by Octavio Brandão”. Arguments (Unimontes), Montes Claros, v. 18, no. 2, Jul.-Dec. 2021.

PRADO Júnior, Caio. The Brazilian Revolution. São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1978.

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